Health Tech: Taylor Justice On How Unite Us’ Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With Dave Philistin
Build the right team and make them feel valued — One person or department cannot solve everything on their own. The one thing you have control of despite peaks and valleys is who you choose to navigate the highs and lows with. We’ve built a team that I’m proud to navigate challenges with. When building technology that makes an impact, it takes a community. Build a team around you and ensure they have the freedom to make decisions and help set the course.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor Justice.
Taylor Justice, U.S. Army veteran, co-founded Unite Us in 2013 while enrolled at Columbia Business School, where he earned his MBA in 2014. Driven by the belief that health is rooted in communities, Taylor advocates for national public infrastructure that connects health and human service providers to holistically provide people with the care they need, when they need it. Under Taylor’s leadership, Unite Us is creating meaningful and sustainable cross-sector partnerships with leaders in government, healthcare, philanthropy, business and community.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Kentucky with a large family and at age 12 we moved to Fort Myers, FL. These two locations were the foundation for my value system and taught me how to treat and interact with others. In both places, hard work, kindness and humility were prioritized and these values were always reinforced.
I was surrounded by entrepreneurs in my family. My great grandparents built and ran their own tobacco and cattle farm, my grandfather ran a successful engineering company, and my mother started her own embroidery business in Florida. Although these businesses were around as I grew up, it was never a career goal of mine to build a company. But I was very creative and active in football, which is where I came to understand team dynamics and learn how to lead. When I was recruited to West Point to play football, it combined my creativity and leadership with my innate desire to serve. All these life experiences led me to start Unite Us and gave me the confidence that I could be successful with it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I still find myself having interesting and important career moments monthly. A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner with a group of industry leaders ranging from one of the top insurance brokers to healthcare executives and the topic of discussion was social care. The group discussed the value of social care, and I was shocked to find myself not having to do any convincing. All of these leaders understood prioritizing social care on the same level as healthcare is the best way forward. In the past, social care has mostly been viewed as “charity”, and these discussions signaled a new understanding that it’s both an economically good idea and a necessary priority across industries. It was a great — albeit delayed — sign of the industry finally coming around to addressing the importance of social care. It was a huge moment for me to look around and recognize the tides have turned.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been many individuals that have helped me along the way from football coaches, teachers, family members, military leaders and business mentors. It’s difficult to call out just one person. Each one brought a different perspective and unique skill set that has influenced how I approach relationships, business settings and personal goals.
I am thankful to those that are humble, those that taught me how to be a straight shooter and those that knew how to listen when I needed it most. Those are the traits I appreciate most and have had the biggest impact on my success along the way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote that has always stuck in my head is: “There Are No Rules!” from the book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. How I’ve channeled the quote, is 1) you have a free license to be as creative as possible and 2) in almost every situation there is an opportunity to do something unexpected and outside of normal convention.
The challenge with the “There Are No Rules” approach is that you’ll be constantly tested by a societal structure that operates under expectations and rules. It could be as simple as, “The agenda for this meeting doesn’t allow time for that” or “Sorry the country is shutting down due to a global pandemic; we don’t have time to discuss technology for social care.” No matter if it’s a big or a small excuse, how you respond is up to you.
At Unite Us we entered a sector that has A LOT of rules, structures, status quos and processes. The industry felt it already had all the answers. But we stuck to the “there are no rules!” mentality and built technology that no one was asking for at the time, having conversations with anyone that would listen about the lack of appropriate health infrastructure, and eventually began to reorient the entire market towards a new and accountable way to care for people.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Grit: There are always ups and downs in any endeavor, but sometimes things just absolutely suck. What do you do? Can you channel difficult circumstances into something and make it your differentiator?
The early days of Unite Us weren’t glamorous. We worked long hours, trying to find product-market fit, while trying not to run out of cash. To layer on the complexity, I lived outside of Philadelphia and we founded the business in NYC. I would spend the weekdays in NYC couch-surfing at friends’ apartments while logging numerous Bolt Bus hours. And I did that for four years. It objectively sucked. But I was able to channel that situation into a positive one. I would tell myself: who else is willing to sacrifice time away from a normal life to chase their passion? It wired my brain to know that under no circumstances will I ever be outworked. I’ll never make an excuse for not getting the job done because of simple inconveniences. I built my resilience to adapt to any situation and make the most of it and I still use that skill every day. I may not be riding a bus from Philly anymore, but I still face hurdles and I see resilience as one of the traits I focus and work on daily.
Ability to express complex ideas with clarity: Clear communication is critical in any setting. Everyone has limited time and our communication with each other has become very purpose driven. The best business leaders can break down complex ideas into simple, compelling stories using data that allows anyone to understand and remember the message. This is especially true in entrepreneurial ventures when you must clearly explain decisions to your team and investors to build transparency and trust.
When we started this business, those in healthcare looked at social care networks in the wrong light. They saw it in the same way they thought about their clinical networks — as proprietary and a way to gain a competitive advantage. We saw social care infrastructure as a shared resource and had to communicate that with simplicity. It took a series of conversations over many years that allowed us to position social care networks as a public utility and not a proprietary tool. It was a multi-year process but at each step we had to break down our vision for customers and network participants that did not see things our way and move them to view the world as we did. Eventually, those in the industry came to accept that our vision was the best path forward to get people the care they need.
Ability to build (and support) a team: The ability to bring people together to work towards a common goal, and identify and harness people’s talents, is essential for any company. As a leader, if you want to truly scale then you must not only prioritize finding talented people, but also relinquish control so those talented individuals can thrive.
In the last 18 months our team has grown from 250 people to nearly 1,000 and as you can imagine we were on a hiring blitz across every business unit. But, in a tale as old as start-up time, hyper growth is not without its pain. What we uncovered was just hiring a ton of extremely talented people doesn’t get the job done if you don’t give them the latitude to make decisions and move the needle. With the best intentions at heart, we were trying to operate a 1,000-person company like it was a 200-person company. This created bottlenecks, frustration and key decisions having to be made “at corporate.” But, our team highlighted how we were slowing things down. We listened, restructured our team and gave authority to our local leaders to make on-the-ground decisions.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our health. To begin, which problems are you aiming to solve?
Unite Us aims to eliminate barriers to care and ensure that everybody has the chance to live a healthy, promising life. Our technology and solutions challenge the current paradigm of reactive, clinically-focused systems of care and instead promotes payment solutions for investment in the foundations of whole-person care, taking the focus of one’s overall health and wellbeing beyond the clinical setting. We ultimately aim to have social care be just as important as healthcare in the U.S.
How do you think your technology can address this?
In many communities, social services are disconnected and siloed, which makes referring clients and tracking the utilization of services difficult and measuring success virtually impossible. With Unite Us, providers across sectors can identify gaps and at-risk populations in need of health and social services — such as food and housing assistance, counseling, job support and more — and track results in a shared technology platform. They can see whether services were delivered and gather information about the outcome of the services provided. Our technology reduces the time it takes for individuals to receive the services they need and empowers each member of the community to easily access quality care.
As we grew, we realized just building a care coordination network wasn’t enough, so through our acquisitions of Carrot Health (the fastest growing consumer and predictive analytics company in the SDOH market) and NowPow we have gained the ability to predict needs of individuals with a social needs score. We can then measure how we’ve improved their overall health by looking at things like health outcomes, to their economic mobility, etc. We also saw that not only could we predict needs, and address those needs, to improve their social needs score, but we can also use this information to drive an economic relationship between healthcare and social care organizations where we create a reimbursement mechanism for the community to provide services that drive down healthcare costs, while improving the overall health of the patient, member or client. We have built an end-to-end solution for social care and did it at scale.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause? How do you think this might change the world?
Co-founder Dan Brillman and I were connected through a military veteran group at Columbia University and quickly realized our joint passion for making care accessible for our community. Through our personal experiences in the military, we saw how inefficient it was for returning veterans to get the health and social care services required to support themselves and their families. I was volunteering at a Philadelphia non-profit helping veterans while Dan was writing a paper about the fragmentation of health and social services and how to connect them in a coordinated system. We saw the impact that would result from standardizing how health and social care providers communicate and track outcomes together. We now get to align stakeholders from healthcare, government and the community around a shared goal to improve health and witness the immense community impact that is a result.
Technology is not unilaterally beneficial. In 2022, tech is a part of every company’s operations and every individual’s life, so when we talk about “tech” as a shorthand what we really mean is innovation and change. Our technology is changing the way healthcare and social care communicate and for that to be effective the people in those organizations must embrace change and help us help them. But, entering our second year of this pandemic, we’re starting to see wide-spread burnout and learning yet another piece of technology can be seen as a burden. What do you do when the people doing this impactful work stop wanting your help? It’s imperative that you make their life easier, that you actually address their problems instead of becoming a burden.
We’re already seeing the “law of unintended consequences’’ formalizing in emergency rooms across the country, where for decades we’ve never prioritized systems that help medical teams with the revolving door of high-need patients who are looking to address their social care needs (e.g. housing, food, behavioral health, dental, etc.) in the ER. We’ve overworked our medical teams because we’ve never prioritized a simple system for coordinating with health and social services. These frustrations have reached their breaking point and we’re starting to see massive burnout within healthcare. We have serious decisions to make as a country because the pandemic has highlighted everything we’ve neglected in our communities and given the current economic climate, it appears things are about to get worse. Technology can play an important role here if we strategically embrace it.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
1. Find the root cause — Start there to provide the most value
Too often, technology solutions are created that don’t dig in far enough to address the root cause. This can lead to too many standalone solutions all addressing small parts of a much bigger issue. By looking at a problem holistically and figuring out which piece to solve first, you can avoid creating technology that only solves tangential problems and doesn’t move the needle.
While building Unite Us, the industry was looking for a resource directory. Sure, improving directories would help address the need for finding better social care options for patients. However, creating a coordinated care platform that allows healthcare workers to better connect with social care organizations in their communities addresses the problem on a much larger scale.
2. Stick to your guns
People dislike change even if what they currently do hurts them. Just as I mentioned above, often solutions are created within the limits of focusing on immediate, smaller needs. Pushing back against large institutions who had an idea in their head of what they needed and saying “that’s not what you need, and here’s why” wasn’t always met with excitement.
People tend to be hesitant to embrace change and stepping into a market that was looking for one solution and offering an entirely different one taught me a very valuable lesson: how to stick to my guns.
3. Build the right team and make them feel valued
One person or department cannot solve everything on their own. The one thing you have control of despite peaks and valleys is who you choose to navigate the highs and lows with. We’ve built a team that I’m proud to navigate challenges with. When building technology that makes an impact, it takes a community. Build a team around you and ensure they have the freedom to make decisions and help set the course.
4. Remember when I said stick to your guns? I meant it.
Whenever we hit a wall as we aimed to explain our technology, we doubled down by adjusting our approach and sticking to our core messaging. In a boardroom full of people expecting to hear a pitch about a resource directory, we told them “that’s not what you need” and dug into the “why”.
Finding a way to navigate around hesitations and double down on the “why” behind your recommendations will convince people to listen.
5. Build a repeatable revenue model
When people think about social care, they often think about nonprofits, government programs and charity organizations. However, the companies that build successful revenue models are the ones that can spend less time focusing on securing more donations and more time innovating their offerings, securing long-term contracts and creating the disruption that’s needed to flip the system.
To build a repeatable revenue model, I recommend that companies focus less on creating custom solutions for each individual problem that can’t be replicated, and instead find the root causes and create solutions that will address them on a large scale.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
It’s simple: do it. Please! You’re needed and you don’t need to sacrifice your professional goals to help others. I see a lot of people saying, “If I want to help people, I need to join a nonprofit or government entity” and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sustainable business, and leaders who drive them, can have a bigger long-term impact on humanity if leveraged correctly and led by ethical values. Be the type of leader the world needs.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. I recently listened to him speak on the Armchair Expert Podcast where in the first few minutes they discuss how the technology industry isn’t helping to solve serious social issues (e.g. homelessness, the housing crisis, addiction, etc.). These issues are very complex with multiple variables needing enhancements processes, infrastructure, policy, investments, etc. yet there is a clear path forward. We need leaders like Schmidt at the table to understand how to make it happen.
Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is another leader I’d love to sit down with. I’ve followed her career and she has a unique background both in policy (actually getting legislation passed) and the private sector. Our current healthcare system is in need of leaders like Chiquita who can read the tea leaves of our financially unsustainable healthcare system and figure out ways to leverage policy to include social care intervention. This allows state governments and managed care organizations (MCO’s) to reimburse for needed social care services that improve health outcomes and drive down costs.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find out more about Unite Us and the work we’re doing on our website. Additionally, readers can feel free to follow Unite Us on LinkedIn, as well as connect with myself and co-founder Dan Brillman.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.